Saturday, November 10, 2007

Auntie Mark

"Is He Dead?" at the Lyceum Theatre, November 9, 2007

A "long lost" farce written by Mark Twain in 1898, but never performed was found in a file cabinet in a library at the University of California-Berkeley.

I'm always curious about "newly discovered" works by long-dead authors. Sadly, sometimes we discover the reason that the work was never published was because it wasn't very good, or wasn't very original as is the case with Is He Dead?

Granted, a new play by Mark Twain is bound to sell some tickets purely for the curiosity factor. Who could blame a producer for putting up a show like that? Too, the production assembles a particularly talented cast, including Norbert Leo Butz, John McMartin, Marylouise Burke and David Pittu. I was also curious to see that the play has been adapted by David Ives for this production, so it's difficult to tell which of the stale/predictable jokes belong to Mr. Twain and and which belong to Mr. Ives. To tell the truth, there are many which belong to Brandon Thomas, the author of Charley's Aunt from which this play pulls much of its humor source.

Briefly, a talented painter in Paris is financially struggling and fakes his own death to reap the benefits as his widowed sister. Toss in a couple of oddball artist sidekicks (1 Irish, 1 German, 1 American), a love interest and her poverty-stricken father and sister, two doting old maids and an evil financier and you have a classic 19th century melodramatic farce. I overheard a gentleman down the row from me comment that putting a man in a dress is one of the lowest forms of humor - and he's right.

But as I mentioned above, it is a terrific cast - and I did see only their second preview. Still, I think Mr. Twain realized there was no silk purse to be made from this sow's ear.

Mr. Butz, as Jean-Francois Millet (who was an actual painter of the time), pulls out all the stops. I did think he became remarkably comfortable in the dress very quickly in the first act. Dancing at any opportunity, I think he would have rather it were a musical (which is not a bad idea). There could be some opportunities in a musical version that would differentiate the piece from Mr. Thomas' work. Mr. Butz is engaging and entertaining as ever with a bright intensity that makes you think he believes the play is better than it is.

Byron Jennings as the evil financier, Bastien Andre, sneers and leers with the best of them. How thoughtful of Paul Huntley to provide him with a Snidley Whiplash mustache to twirl on cue. He's having a grand time.

Michael McGrath shuffles along as Millet's side-kick, Agamemnon "Chicago" Buckner, greasing the path for the deception. John McMartin's Papa Leroux doesn't manage to get past the second dimension of the script, but is entertaining nonetheless. The other performers I mentioned earlier, David Pittu and Marylouise Burke both turn in respectable performances, rising a bit above the material.

Director Michael Blakemore has taken no stance of subtletly or finesse in his handling of cast and script. The jokes are broad and the humor is physical. Peter J. Davison's contrasting sets serve nicely, as do Martin Pakledinaz' excellent costumes.

It's not a bad play, it's just not very original. It is, however, a suitable substitute for Charley's Aunt for any community or school theatre group looking to do a light period piece.

1 comment:

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Mondschein, I think this is one of those occasions where the preview process (and perhaps the strike) helped this creative team step it up many notches since you saw it.

Although I can't be sure just how much the show has changed since you saw it, if at all, by the time I took in the performance, I couldn't believe how hard I was laughing.